Can Sudan Split Without Falling Apart?

Southern Sudan is set to become the world's newest nation. But a peaceful divorce from the north could still descend into war

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Dominic Nahr / Magnum for TIME

Southern Sudanese police escort civilians across the border

What kind of life Achai Chol and her husband Majok Alae would build in the world's newest country came down to how much they could fit on the bus. In late November, the couple and their nine children climbed aboard a battered 44-seater outside their house in Dongle, in the far north of Sudan, and rode south across the Sahara for nine days. On the roof: 11 beds, 11 mattresses, five suitcases, a gas cooker, a fan, a television and much, much more. The family was part of an exodus of hundreds of thousands of southerners from northern Sudan before a Jan. 9 referendum on southern independence. Camping in the dust and heat by the side of the road in Abyei, just south of the effective border dividing Sudan, Achai could see nothing but good times ahead. "We are in our place," she said, beaming. "Even if we have no money, nothing bad can happen. We are on our land."

Two days later, in the nearby village of Tagalei, headman Mijak Kuol, 47, would use the same words to explain why war was imminent. "We are in our place," he said. "This is where our ancestors lived and died. We must fight for it."

Is Sudan witnessing the birth of a new nation or the restart of an old war? In the run-up to the referendum, in which southerners are expected to vote overwhelmingly to carve Africa's biggest country in two, it's possible to discern both. Africa meets Arabia in this vast land, and the two halves of the nation differ in culture, race and religion. Over two centuries, the Arab north oppressed the African south, raiding it for slaves well into the 20th century. Sudan's two long civil wars since its independence from Anglo-Egyptian control in 1956 have claimed some 2 million lives. The uncertainty that past evokes is stoking tensions among Sudan's 44 million people. Stakes are high for the wider world too. Conflict in Sudan would spill over its borders, with refugees fleeing the fighting. And Sudan attracts global economic interest: its oil reserves are significant, as are its minerals, from copper to gold.

Peaceful separation between north and south is possible. In 2005 the U.S. brokered a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) to end more than half a century of conflict, creating an autonomous southern region and holding out the option of secession if the south so chose. That event at first seemed unlikely, not least because it was opposed by the south's longtime leader John Garang. But with his death in 2005, and Khartoum's continued discrimination against Sudan's regions, separation has become the south's choice. This "is the final part of our journey," said the man destined to be southern Sudan's first President, Salva Kiir Mayardit, in a speech last January.

There are reasons to share his optimism. The referendum process faces a tight timetable but one that can be met, say monitors from the Carter Peace Center. Both north and south are showing diplomatic restraint: Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has promised to let the south leave Sudan if it chooses to, and when northern bombers strayed into southern territory in December, the south did not respond in kind. Zach Vertin, Sudan specialist at the International Crisis Group, argues that Sudan's oil can be a force for peace. "The oil is largely in the south, and the infrastructure to export it runs through the north," he says. "So there is mutual reliance."

But if Sudan's history makes dividing the nation seem an obvious solution, drawing a line in the sand is not as easy as it sounds. Northerners can be dark-skinned, southerners can be Muslim, and the southern capital, Juba, is the southernmost Arabic-speaking town in the world. The toweringly tall Ngok Dinka tribe, whose members live around Abyei and of which Mijak Kuol is a leader, is a case in point. Though black African in appearance, the tribe has historically sided with the richer Arab north. Today, upset by Khartoum's marginalization of Sudan's regions, they want to secede along with the south. The north vehemently objects. So do the Misseriya, a tribe of cattle herders who have traditionally moved south into Ngok Dinka land during the northern dry season and who want to remain part of Sudan. And Abyei also has oil.

The dispute has already sparked violence. In 2008 the northern army leveled Abyei and killed about 100 of its residents. In 2010 the Misseriya attacked three villages nearby. To try to stop the Abyei dispute from wrecking the entire peace process, the CPA's framers included a separate, simultaneous referendum on whether to join the north or south. But a deadlock over who should be allowed to vote — whether to include the Misseriya alongside the Ngok Dinka — means that poll will not happen.

With the Abyei process broken, more killing seems likely. The Ngok Dinka are backed by the main southern rebel force, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which is moving fighters into the area. Claire McEvoy, a Sudan specialist at the Small Arms Survey, which monitors conflicts, says the north is doing the same. "Anything could happen," she says.

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